M.M. LaFleur emerges from pandemic
M.M. LaFleur, the New York-based women's apparel brand, is marking a decade in business this year after nearly succumbing to the pandemic, founder and CEO Sarah Miyazawa LaFleur tells Axios.
Why it matters: During Women's History Month, we're featuring several women-founded retail businesses.
- LaFleur's story tells us about the problems startups needed to solve to successfully stay in business.
Flashback: Founded in 2013, the thesis of M.M. LaFleur was to provide comfortable but fashionable office wear for women.
- The company launched with a collection of work-wear dresses that LaFleur described as "onesies" for women.
- Initially, customers were sent boxes of pre-selected wardrobe items based on survey responses.
- However, the company discontinued that service in 2019, pivoting to launch a campaign for women running for office that got attention from former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
- By February 2020, its spring line was notching the highest sales of any collection the brand had launched, LaFleur says.
What happened: In early 2020, supply chain snags with Chinese partners began to rankle the business, but LaFleur says she assumed COVID-19's impact would be similar to that of SARS.
- M.M. LaFleur's imagined worst-case scenario was sales falling by 20%, but the second quarter proved to be disastrous for the company, with sales falling at least 50%, she says.
- "The hardest part was trying to plan," LaFleur says, noting the unprecedented length of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the company's strategy,
What they did: In June 2020, investors put together a small round for the apparel brand without which it would not have survived, LaFleur says.
- M.M. LaFleur immediately closed all of its stores, laid off those who worked in them, and experimented with designing apparel primarily focused on comfort.
- After business did not rebound in 2021, the company conducted another round of layoffs in September of that year.
- When the Omicron variant emerged, LaFleur says she questioned whether the business could continue, and she came close to shutting it down.
- Yet another round of layoffs at the end of 2021 saved the business, she says.
Fast forward: By late 2022 — a comeback year for the brand — M.M. LaFleur was back to 89% of its 2019 revenue.
- The brand is increasingly focused on "power casual," a blend of dressing for a hybrid work world that consists of a blazer, an underpinning and a pair of pants.
The big picture: "It came down to two things, we were willing to change everything in order to survive— everything was thrown out the window —and all ideas were possibilities," LaFleur says.
Reality check: While M.M. LaFleur sees "a light at the end of the tunnel," the company is still in turnaround mode, the founder acknowledges.
Yes, but: The company plans to open a handful of stores this year.
The bottom line: "If we have good product and we know who the customer is, we will find our footing and we have," LaFleur says.